(HWT note: This is the first in a series of articles examining materials used in service body construction.)
Steel, aluminum, fiberglass, polypropylene…
Service bodies provide that critical workshop or office on wheels, and choosing the right one requires some research.
Hard Working Trucks interviewed service body companies to learn more about their material options and some of the trends driving market demands. Our first article in the series focuses on Reading Truck Body.
It’s no surprise that steel is still king. When it comes to strength and affordability, most fleets and owner-operators still opt for steel when spec’ing a service body.
However, advances in technology coupled with changes in vehicle designs and market demands are helping other materials make steady gains on steel.
When talking with Craig Bonham, vice-president of sales and business development for Reading Truck Body, it becomes quickly apparent that he’s a big proponent of the company’s aluminum bodies.
Reading is so confident in their aluminum bodies that they feature a 10-year warranty, which is four additional years of purchase protection over their steel models. That’s pretty telling considering that critics contend that aluminum generally lacks the strength of steel, is more expensive and, though it doesn’t rust, is susceptible to corrosion.
Nonetheless, market interest in Reading’s aluminum offerings continues to grow at an impressive rate. A recent fourth quarter report revealed that the Pennsylvania-based company saw a 50 percent year-over-year increase in sales for some of its aluminum models.
“Astronomical,” Bonham says of the uptick in sales. “Demand for other products that we don’t currently manufacture in aluminum today is now surfacing.”
Since it’s much lighter than steel, aluminum is frequently touted for its fuel cost savings. The EPA reports that for every 100 pounds of reduced vehicle weight, expect a 1 percent reduction in fuel consumption.
But even with low fuel prices, sales of Reading’s aluminum bodies have remained brisk, Bonham says. So what else is driving the market?
Generally, aluminum bodies weigh about half that of their steel counterparts and 10 percent less than a fiberglass composite body, which means more than just fuel savings.
“That actually has a tremendous effect on applicable legal—I want to stress that—legal payload on a vehicle,” Bonham says. “And that has become a sensitive topic for many, many owner-operators today, large fleets, companies, etc. that have the need to move a lot of product, a lot of tools and make one trip at a time and remain legal.”
A new Euro-style van that lacks the same large chassis and engine as old market favorites, such as Ford’s E-series van, cannot support as much payload. When paired up with a steel body, that payload diminishes even more, so much that Reading thinks it impractical to even offer a steel body for either the Ford Transit or Ram ProMaster Euro-style vans. Instead, Reading has an aluminum body for those popular OEM models which overcomes payload concerns and keeps the van within legal payload limits.
“As an example, if we were to install an aluminum CSV, that’s our classic service van, in an 11-foot configuration—57 inches high interior from floor-plate to ceiling—we can pass on to that client 3,300 pounds of legal payload, with two people in the vehicle, and a full tank of fuel and their lunch,” Bonham explains.
“So imagine if it was a steel offering. We would be looking at something around 1,500 pounds of legal payload, maybe 16, 17 tops. A boiler can weigh 300 pounds. Tools can weigh a 1,000 pounds. There’s nothing left.”
Sensitivity to DOT fines and the need to remain under 10,000 pounds of gross vehicle weight is helping to make aluminum a more attractive option. Benefits to keeping a vehicle under 10,000 pounds include no CDL requirement for the driver and lower operational costs for the vehicle’s owner.
“It’s less vehicle to insure because it’s not in that next class level,” Bonham points out. “It also costs less to register that vehicle because you’re running in a lower class level.”
Other benefits of using aluminum to lighten the load include less wear and tear on brakes and the suspension. If dual rear wheels are no longer needed to support payload then that results in tire savings.
But aluminum is not for everyone, Bonham says. First up is cost consideration. On average, an aluminum body will cost about 23 to 28 percent more than a comparable steel body.
“But it will last longer, and we need to define that,” Bonham says. “Depending on the exposure, and the severe service that the product goes through, we’re willing to stand behind it four more years structurally.”
Depending on the alloy content, aluminum can be just as strong or even stronger than steel, gauge for gauge, Bonham says. Still, aluminum is not recommended for all industries.
An interview process with Reading will determine if an aluminum body is an ideal match for the owner’s vocation. Since the oil industry calls for heavy structural design and reinforcement, aluminum is not recommended. Same for concrete work, especially where dump bodies are concerned, but there are exceptions.
“If you’re a craftsman in the concrete environment, doing trowel work, certainly aluminum will work very, very well,” Bonham says.
Industries that frequently deal with corrosive materials, like those used in pest control and pool maintenance, are not ideal candidates for aluminum bodies. Steel or even stainless steel bodies are available. Fiberglass is an option, too, through Reading’s parent company, J.B. Poindexter.
Reinforcing an aluminum body is fine, up to a point.
“There are times when aluminum calls out for so much structural reinforcement to get to the resistance for the deformation that the product could be susceptible to that it becomes at that point cost prohibitive,” Bonham explains.
“If we have to put so much structure into it, the cost elevates beyond what the return on investment could be for the customer. So we look at those things sharply.”
Because their truck bodies may be exposed to some tough driving conditions that introduce challenging torsional stress, Reading employs an abundance of structural reinforcements.
“Aluminum bodies at Reading are typically constructed of 60-61 T-6 aluminum, an extruded understructure combined to an integral floor plate and a street-side/curbside pack assembly, that’s basically, a unibody construction,” Bonham says.
“We have to understand that the product could be exposed to a lot of severe environments so we put a lot of structural reinforcements into that product.”
All service bodies have a finite lifespan. At the end of the road, the recycling advantage goes to aluminum given its lower melting point at 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. Steel melts at around 2500 degrees. Bonham says since fiberglass is considered a hazardous material, its disposal costs can add up.
Steel does find its way on Reading’s bodies. The company’s high strength, cantilever designed hiding hinge assembly is made of steel, along with shelving, the rear bumper and strut door holders. Paddle latches and tail gate knee braces are made from stainless steel.
“We utilize steel where steel is crucial,” Bonham explains.
In the end, the real pay-off for using aluminum is the increased payload, Bonham says.
“If you look at potential clients utilizing that product, such as the HVAC industry, locksmiths, heating and cooling contractors, electrical contractors, home remediation, remodeling—all of those people are looking for forced organization, maximum amounts of tools, and inventory on board. That’s their mobile workshop on wheels, and they can capture that when they go to aluminum.”